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Count of NYCHA apartments with lead paint — and kids — on pace to hit 20,000

October 26, 2020 Greg B. Smith, THE CITY

This story was originally published on Oct. 25 by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

The number of public housing apartments where children under 6 are potentially exposed to lead poisoning is likely to more than double to 20,000 apartments, an examination by THE CITY found.

That’s far more than the 9,000 apartments believed to have lead paint that NYCHA last week said house young kids, who are particularly vulnerable to developmental damage caused by exposure to toxic lead paint chips and dust.

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And it’s nearly seven times the 3,000 apartments Housing Authority officials had originally estimated two years ago when federal law enforcement charged NYCHA with deliberately covering up its lead paint problems. Meanwhile, officials have yet to inspect tens of thousands of apartments believed to contain lead paint.

The numbers grew after NYCHA, at the urging of a federal monitor appointed to oversee the nation’s biggest housing authority, ratcheted up its effort to see how many of its 172,000 apartments still have lead paint.

Officials were also charged with figuring out precisely how many children live in those potentially toxic apartments.

In 2018, NYCHA compiled a list of 134,000 apartments believed to contain lead paint, and in spring 2019 began sending in teams to perform what are called XRF-tests for the presence of lead. Then in February, NYCHA workers started door-knocking those apartments and asking tenants whether any child under six either lived there or spent more than 10 hours a week there.

By last week, workers had visited 48,000 apartments and tested 45,000, discovering young children living in 6,500 of the targeted apartments. That’s about 13 percent of all the apartments visited.

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But the door-knocking and testing is far from complete, with another 86,000 apartments to go. If the 13 percent rate holds up, NYCHA can expect to find another 11,000 tainted units — bringing the total of apartments with lead paint and young children to 20,000, THE CITY’s analysis found.

‘Complete Disregard’ for Children

NYCHA declined to discuss THE CITY’s analysis, stating in an emailed response to questions, “The number will be updated as we have collected additional data, and will continue to be updated as we collect more data and engage in these efforts throughout each year.”

But the sudden spike in numbers has alarmed elected officials who’ve long criticized NYCHA’s management, including City Council Public Housing Committee Chair Alicka Ampry-Samuel and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Adams, who is expected to run for mayor, held a news conference Sunday at Brownsville’s Van Dyke Houses where 75 percent of the apartments have registered the presence of lead paint, records show.

He called on NYCHA to waive rent for “any tenant living in any impacted apartment until the lead is remediated,” and said Congress should insert funding for NYCHA lead abatement into the COVID-aid stimulus package currently stalled in Washington.

“The latest revelation by the federal monitor only underscores the complete disregard the city has shown to Black and brown children,” he said. “I can’t help but think that if this were taking place in Sutton Place in Manhattan and not Sutter Avenue in Brownsville, the city’s response would be very different. The only way we will get a real turnaround at NYCHA is real-time, data-driven accountability and transparency of its asset management.”

New Rounds of Inspections

At the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, NYCHA showed up last week to test for lead in the two-bedroom apartment of tenant Alex Alejandro, 24, where he lives with his mother, his wife, his younger brother and his 2-year-old daughter, Aliya.

His mother is currently in a health center recovering from COVID. His daughter’s blood-lead levels have never been tested, he said.

Alejandro and his family have lived in Queensbridge for 12 years, and never once has NYCHA tested for lead paint, he said. Then on Tuesday a crew showed up with an XRF device that registers the presence of lead.

Alex Alejandro says NYCHA workers recently inspected the Queensbridge apartment where he lives with his wife, daughter and mother for lead. Oct. 23, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
The crew worked its way around the unit, using the hand-held XRF device to scan walls, floors, pipes and windowsills throughout the apartment. The family now awaits the results, although the NYCHA worker who did the testing wouldn’t say when they could expect to get them.

“He said, ‘We’ll let you know. If we find something, we’ll let you know,’” Alejandro said. “Right now it’s just, I’m concerned. I’m a little concerned. It’s the first time I’ve seen them talk about the lead and all that.”

Queensbridge, which first opened in 1940, is the largest public housing development in the United States and is split into two sections, North and South. Alejandro lives in Queensbridge South, where testing has just begun.

As of Oct. 8, only 33 of the 1,559 apartments in Queensbridge South had been tested, and so far none of the tenants there have been told the results, according to a tracking system NYCHA maintains on its website.

In Queensbridge North, most of the testing is already complete. As of Oct. 8th, 672 of 759 apartments have been tested, with 87 percent of those testing negative.

Across the 134,000 apartments where NYCHA believes lead paint is likely to be found, the positivity rate is much higher. So far, of the 41,000 test results registered as of Oct. 8th, 22,171 or about 54 percent of the apartments tested are positive for lead paint.

Two More Years

The effort to pinpoint homes with children and lead paint was temporarily halted in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic when NYCHA stopped most repairs that required workers to enter tenants’ apartments. But in the last few weeks that effort has resumed.

For years, NYCHA had insisted that only a handful of children living in its apartments were lead poisoned. After revelations by the press and Manhattan federal prosecutors, NYCHA was forced to reveal that 1,160 children living in public housing had registered elevated blood-lead levels in the last decade through 2018.

During its current door-knocking campaign, NYCHA is not keeping track of how many young children live in the targeted apartments. Instead, they’re just noting that at least one child under six lives or spends at least 10 hours a week there.

“This data is not available. The door knocking and XRF-related surveys are used to determine only whether there is a child who lives in or regularly visits the unit, and not how many children, for example, visit the unit,” NYCHA officials wrote.

Both the door-knocking and the XRF testing are now expected to continue into 2022. It’s not clear whether NYCHA will let tenants and the public know what it finds as the effort continues. The results of the door-knocking so far were only made public by the federal monitor, Bart Schwartz — not the Housing Authority.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.


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